As Va. Governor restores Scooter Libby’s Voting Rights, 20% of Va. Blacks Remain Disenfranchised
Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, had his voting rights restored by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on November 1 of last year, just before the presidential election.
As the Associated Press explains, “[Libby] was convicted in 2007 of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements in a case involving leaked information that compromised the covert identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Libby’s 2½-year prison sentence was commuted by then-President George W. Bush.”
I’m a strong advocate for restoring the rights of felons but this strikes me as quite illustrative of our two-teired justice system, which routinely gives special treatment to powerful criminals while punishing the rest of us to fullest extent of the law and then some.
Virginia is uniquely discriminatory because the power to restore voting rights lies solely with the Governor. Otherwise, former felons are disenfranchised for life, a rule that disproportionally affects African Americans, leaving 20 percent of the state’s voting age blacks barred from voting.
To his credit, Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell has restored the rights of some 4,600 felons, more than any other Va. Governor of either party. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 350,000 voting age Virginians (7.3 percent of the population) prohibited from voting due to a felony conviction. As the Washington Post points out, “even if Mr. McDonnell doubled or tripled the rate of restorations in his remaining year in office, Virginia would still have the nation’s third-largest disenfranchised population, after Florida and Texas.”
It’s quite telling that Libby was the among the 1,000 former felons whose rights McDonnell restored in 2012.
Meanwhile, people like 65-year-old Walter Lomax, who spent thirty-nine years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, are still barred from voting in Virginia. Lomax was freed but never officially exonerated so his criminal record still stands. Then there’s Khawaja Marzuq, a 39-year-old black man living in Richmond, Va., who has never voted in his life and probably never will due to a felony he committed as a teenager.
McDonnell has proposed legislation that would automatically restore the civil rights of nonviolent offenders, including their right to the ballot box. Unfortunately, the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly has firmly rejected the proposal.
But the ACLU points out that McDonnell doesn’t need to wait for the legislature to get on board. He has the power to issue an executive order to restore the rights of former felons now. “The Governor cannot and should not wait for legislators to take action. Even if they chose to act, at best, it would still take two years to institute reform,” said executive director of the Va. ACLU Claire G. Gastañaga in a statement last month.
Here’s some Background on felony disenfranchisement for those of you unfamiliar with its Jim Crowesque nature:
The Sentencing project estimates that nearly 6 million Americans with criminal convictions are barred from voting, with 1 in 13 voting age black Americans affected compared to 1 in 40 adults overall. More than half of the disenfranchised felon population (over 3 million) come from just six southern states – Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia – where more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.
Those six southern states, which are no strangers to civil rights abuses, also have the worst records when it comes to disenfranchising African Americans. In the lead are Florida (23%), Virginia (20%), and Kentucky (22%) — where 1 in 5 African Americans cannot vote— followed by Alabama (15%), Mississippi (14%) and Tennessee (19%).
Disenfranchisement not only dilutes minority representation but also undermines American democracy.
A 2002 study by sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza revealed that 7 U.S. Senate races would have been reversed had felons been allowed to vote. In fact, Democrats have the most to lose since the felon population consists mostly of poor people and minorities, groups that traditionally vote Democrat. In fact, the authors found that Al Gore would have decisively won the presidency in 2000 had Florida’s disenfranchised felons been allowed to vote.
This isn’t a problem for powerful people like Scooter Libby who get take one for the team and get a felony slap on the wrist because chances are the rules won’t apply to them for long. As for the rest of us (particularly black men) we’re stuck waiting on powerful people, like Scooter Libby, to change the laws so that all of us can participate in this so-called democracy.